Origin: landscapes and peoplescapes

This post has only one connection with the traditional wines of Southern Andalucía: it is about wine, and top class wines at that. Because a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to taste the 2020 vintage of single vineyard wines of Artadi in Laguardia and they were exceptional, as were the people involved.

It started with a reception at Las Colonias in Laguardia – a superb, imposing building – at which there were more than a few friends, before a round table discussion between four top drawer speakers. First was Carlos Lopez de Lacalle, taking the baton from his illustrious father and setting up the day with a warm welcome and the introduction of a well chosen theme: “Origen: Paisajes y Paisanajes” (Origin, landscapes and “peoplescapes”), a title drawing together two of the dimensions of great wines: the places they are made and the people that make them.

First to speak to the topic was Aitor Arregui of Elkano. I have written before on here about the restaurants this man is behind (Elkano and Cataria) their exceptional understanding – and communication – of the terroir of the sea, and how much that knowledge and communication contributed to what were two of the best meals of a life featuring quite a few good ones. Well on Monday there was more of the same – simply and clearly communicated, and with an emotion that set the tone for the day. There was also a first glimpse of the bonds of friendship and family that are one of the other abiding memories of the day. A superb start.

His key point was that landscape and time defined the produce of Getaria, near the southernmost extent of the bay of Biscay, but the way that that produce had been interpreted by the local population had defined a cuisine and culture – we fish it, we grill it – (sounds simple but try it) that in turn attuned the population to the patterns of the currents and life cycles of the animals. By stripping away all artifice the culture is one that demands an understanding of the culinary qualities and seasons of the animals in a kind of virtuous spiral, redefining what can be done with a grill one splash of “Lourdes water” at a time.

He was followed by Ramiro Ibañez, beloved of this parish, who picked up the same theme and took it in a different direction from the opposite end of the Peninsula. Ramiro spoke to how the differences in terrain and wine making possibilities of Sanlucar and Jerez had over the centuries shaped first the wines, then the population and their tastes, spurring further specialization not only in wine but in cuisine and again a virtuous circle that had created great diversity in a small area. He also picked up on the social and industrial changes that threatened to break that virtuous circle, as industrialization and 18th century globalization offered winemakers markets and wine drinkers choices, and lead to a blurring and forgetting of that diversity. (In fact he actually started there – even if I remembered it in reverse.)

Ramiro in turn was followed by Rodrigo Gonzalez, director of wine for the Dani Garcia group who picked up what looked like a nasty hospital pass and to be fair he ran on with aplomb. He recognized too the same issues of globalization and industrialization that Ramiro had picked up but rather than denying the market he took their themes of people and places and tied them to the stories of wine that resonate with customers in restaurants and stores. When the client can come from anywhere in a shifting world, and can get their DRC on almost anywhere they go, a wine shaped by a place and a people is an anchor – and a wine and a cuisine borne of the same culture is an anchor upon anchor, a link between the ephemeral pleasure of a glass of wine, a dish. and the centuries, millenia, and more. It was a beautiful way to tie up one of the best round tables I have witnessed at a wine event.

That round table gave way to a debate about the same concerns – how changes in society were challenging the succession of traditional family businesses and prising the most precious real estate from their historic owners, in Rioja and elsewhere. Pretty gloomy stuff, but probably the same debate has been repeated for the last 100 years and the world has not come to an end just yet. More optimistically, the very presence of Ramiro was a reminder that however far a wine region can fall from its tree, consumers will seek out wines that reflect the place and the culture when possible.

Fascinating stuff but the time tends to drag on when you have four empty wine glasses in front of you. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait much longer for the bride and groom and before we knew it the glasses were no longer empty. After a few words on the – pretty challenging – climate conditions and evolution of the vineyards during the 2019-20 growing season it was time to taste the 2020 single vineyard wines.

The tasting had a neat structure because we tasted the wines, more or less, in order of the depth of navigable soil in the vineyards, as captured by a set of “calicatas” – from 60cm to over 2m tall. (You like terroir? Look at those tubes!) This frankly is right up my street – an attempt to understand the wines in the context of the soils, and opens up a dimension I look forward to exploring further. And neither was it excessively nerdy – Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle disarmingly recognized that they were exploring and trying to understand the “what” but still didn’t know “why”.

First up were Cuerdamayor and Santa Cecilia – two old vineyards, planted in the 20s and 30s but with only 55 and 60 cm of topsoil. Surface feeding old vines you might call them. And the contrasts started right away: while Cuerdamayor had a bright, floral and fruity nose and a zesty, lively acidity, Santa Cecilia was altogether more mineral, more serious, a touch of the skin of barbecued peppers. Both extremely drinkable but with distinct personalities.

The second flight were three classy wines: La Laguna, San Lazaro, and Quintanilla. Vineyards planted in 1920, 1956 and 1951, respectively, with 105, 145 and 175 cm of topsoil available. Again this flight showed personalities that were different between each other and from the earlier flight. La Laguna was all blackcurrant fruit gums and even a touch of honey on the nose, and then a surprisingly saline and savoury palate. San Lazaro, by contrast was like a punnet of fresh black fruit, or even a blackberry bush on the nose, and had that same freshness and a leafy acidity on the palate. Quintanilla was a further step in that direction, with blackberry jam on the nose and then a palate with soft tannins and a hint of apple seed, nice profile that was full of flavour and compact.

These, by the way, are from my notes, but I wish I had taken better note of what had been said by Juan Carlos and Carlos as they presented the wines because their thoughts and angles on the art of wine tasting and description were fascinating. I tend to think of wines in shapes and textures, but Juan Carlos seems to see them like a combination of architectural blue prints and poetry (and don’t worry, no poetry was recited). Carlos, on the other hand had a more direct-to-the-emotion approach, comparing wines to the feeling of a surfboard on a wave amongst other things.

Anyway the third flight had four wines: Terreras (1960, 1970 and 1990 – up to 2m), La Hoya (1965, 105 cm), la Poza de Ballesteros (1960, 115cm) and San Martin (Laguardia, 1930, 185cm). As you have probably guessed by now, four distict personalities. Terreras is deep ribena on the nose and on the palate, black fruit from start to finish, long, acidic, and with a lovely fine shape to it – fruit all the way to the end, but with tannins that give it a graphite, mineral quality. La Hoya by comparison was light and vivacious, with structure but spark. This was a wine where Juan Carlos’s comment really struck home – he described it as having “living” room, space between lines – and I can understand it – the lightness, brightness of the edge of the profile and the softness of the centre. Very nice. That was followed by la Poza de Ballesteros, again a delightful combination of lightness and meatiness, quieter than La Hoya but meatier too, a very nice balance to it, and then by San Martin, which for me was something else, with a funkier nose, and a richness of palate and texture, chocolatey complexity that I loved. At the time San Martin was my wine of the day, with just an extra dimension that the others did not have – can’t wait to see it all grown up in a couple of years.

The final flight was lead out by Valdegines (Laguardia, 1989 and 1992, 2m), then El Carretil, (Lagurdia, 1930, 1975 and 1988, 2m) and, finally, El Pison, the family vineyard, planted in 1945 on a site in Laguardia with soils of at least 1,50 (and possibly endless). Yet more contrasts. Valdegines was aptly described as a creature of an inhabited mountainside, fruit and leaf but hints or malted barley and stew on the palate and fruit on the finish, with perhaps an outermost covering of charcoal tannins. For a wine from such young vines a real cracker. El Carretil is really a little gem. On the nose it is burgundy-like, has that tension like the strings of a tennis racquet and red fruit, even liquorice. Then on the palate you get a lovely tight profile with those same red fruit flavours, beautiful wine. And el Pisón is a big gem, a massive cucumber as the boys round here would say. Less brightness and tension on the nose than El Carretil and fruit that is darker, but a profile that could have been carved by Bernini, silky and elegant, and not jammy but full – fruit in every atom, and there, long and soft all the way through a long finish.

A really outstanding tasting, superb wines and an unforgettable opportunity to taste 12 wines from different vines together on an equal footing. The sort of tasting that makes me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a taster and writer, even when I take notes and they survive the day.

And there was plenty left for them to survive because the festival didn’t finish there. After a brief stretch of the legs in the sunshine we were back for lunch at the hands of Aitor and his crew from Elkano and it was, again, thrillingly memorable, with antxoa, txitxarro, lobstr, kokotxas (on the grill and pil pil), potxa a lo pelayo, the world famous rodaballo (turbot) and a dessert that, if it isn’t famous yet, really ought to be.

It was a lunch that on another day would have been the highlight of the year, and again it was washed down with more outstanding Artadi wines: Izar Leku 2017, the fourth generation of their really excellent sparkling txacoli, a superb Viñas de Gain Blanco 2014 that stands comparison with many much more famous Rioja whites, and then four reds that were a happy reminder of what the years would bring the wines of the morning: Viñas de Gain 2011, La Poza de Ballesteros 2012, Grandes Añadas 2000, and El Pisón 2004. You don’t need me to tell you that those last three, in particular, are absolutely world class, but by this stage of proceedings my note taking had dwindled from note taking to non-existent, and as the afternoon wore on and bottles came and went, the dancing and singing started and my memory becomes increasingly cloudy.

Not enough to obscure the memory of a wonderful, unforgettable day, and it would be incomplete and unfair too to sign off without mentioning the warmth and fun of the company from start to pretty late finish. The bonds of friendship and family were evident throughout the day and it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of it.

Larga vida y muchas gracias a Artadi, Elkano, sus paisajes y paisanajes!

Night of the mayetos in Sagrario Tradicion

They say better late than never so here is a long overdue write up of a cracking night – all of three months ago during sherry week – when we celebrated one of my favourite projects in one of my favourite places.

The project in question is the “Mayeteria Sanluqueña”: José Manuel “Manu” Harana, Rafael Rodriguez, Antonio Bernal and Daniel Rodriguez, four “mayetos” that make up one of the most intriguing stories in el marco de Jerez.

“Mayeto” is the traditional term in Sanlucar for a small scale grower – of anything really (if you haven’t tried the potatoes from a navazo you haven’t tried real potatoes) – but particularly vitis vinifera. Historically these small producers have played a big role in the wines of Jerez: mayetos have been responsible for a large proportion of production, although at least in recent years their numbers and production have fallen, and have tended to be limited to supplying the cooperatives and larger bodegas.

But now with the inspiration and help of the great viticultor and winemaker Ramiro Ibañez the mayetos of the Mayetería Sanluqueña have started once again to make their own wines. They are unfortified wines from palomino fino sold under the brand “Corta y Raspa” from vineyards in some of the most emblematic and famous “pagos” of Jerez and Sanlúcar: Añina, Atalaya, Charruado, Maína and Miraflores. They make them from their best, oldest vines, with a production of less than 7,000 kg per hectare (a condition of being part of the project, in a region where it is not unusual for yields to be more than 11,000 kg/ha) and using artisanal, traditional winemaking techniques.

And the result is a series of wines that are fresh, drinkable, but which express the characteristics of the vines and vineyards like no other. We are talking honest wines with minimal intervention that let you clearly feel the influence of the altitude, location, climate and type of the famous albarizas.

The only pity is how hard it is to find and enjoy them – here in Madrid or anywhere else for that matter. (Although you can get them from the Cuatrogatos Wine Club). So when I was asked by my good friends at Sagrario Tradicion – a fantastic new restaurant here in the neighbourhood – what they could do for sherry week it didn’t take me long to further my agenda of bringing these wines within reach.

Were it not for the awful year that 2020 has been we would have had the mayetos come and present their wines to a packed house. That was not to be – but we were able to get hold of the few bottles that remained so that Nico and his crew at Sagrario could pair them up with their quality cooking. Specifically we were able to get the Atalaya 2018, “La Charanga” (Maina) 2018 and “La Charanga” (Maina) 2017.

They are wines that come from vines a small distance apart – just 2,8km – but despite being neighbours, the difference in the albarizas, together with the degrees of humidity and freshness in the vines, result in a vegetation of the vine, thickness of the skin of the fruit, concentration, and other possible parameters that give identity and character that make the vineyard recognizable in the wineglass.

In the words of the mayetos themselves:

Atalaya is a pago near Sanlúcar, with “lentejuela” or “antehojuela” albarizas, with a high chalk content, but a looser, less compact structure, allowing an easier development of the roots and vegetation of the top side. It is at about 55 metres above sea level (above the magic 45 metres celebrated in “Cota 45”) and is closer to the sea, with the effects of the fresh, humid winds of the poniente (from the sea). The wine is dry, sapid, saline, and structured without losing freshness and acidity.

Maina is a pago (slightly) further inland, but with more influence from the river and the winds of the “levante”. The poniente winds are weakened by the pago Hornillos (Callejuela), Martin Miguel, and Atalaya that bear their brunt. The altitude is higher, at between 65 and 75 metres. The albariza here is barajuela, the toughest. It is very rich in calcium and structured in layers, making the development of the roots difficult and leading to lesser top vegetation. The wines are very direct, dry and potent, the most sapid of them all. It is the pago richest in content of “diatomeas” (fossils of microscopic organisms) in the marco de Jerez, giving the wine great impact on the palate.

On the other hand, in the case of La Charanga we were able to try the different qualities of two different vintages: the 2017, with a very warm summer which obliged the growers to bring forward the harvest, and the 2018, a year with abundant rain and a very cool summer which obliged them, on the contrary, to delay the harvest to September for the first time in many years.

A tantalising prospect and it turned out to be an absolutely great week by all accounts. I am not sure how many people pitched up – although Sagrario is always busy anyway – but if everyone who sent me a message did then they must have been standing in the aisles. It was fair packed when a group of like minded souls and I rocked up and availed ourselves of the opportunity before the curfew, and neither Sagrario nor the wines disappointed.

From the first I had thought of the two as a perfect match – in Sagrario they like their natural, terroir driven wines for a start, with Nico having been the man behind more than one in his time – but the obsession with tradition and nature isn’t only a wine thing. I will never forget Nico telling me all about where the frogs that generously donated their legs to the cause of his pisto were from and why. But just in general it is a place for simple but imaginative and always nicely carried out preparations of top quality produce and the menu they came up for with the mayetos was no exception.

And the wines, well they were three little beauties – only 2.8km and 12 months in it but three lovely wines that were as different as you could ask for. A perfect demonstration of the potential of the terroir of Sanlucar and Jerez and one of the best wine experiences for a long time.

Tohqa

There are some posts that are difficult to write for the simple reason that you have too much riding on them. The post about my lunch this summer in Tohqa (pronounced like you are from Cadiz – Tozca) has been one of them. I don’t just say that by way of excuse (although excuses would be in order having spent four months writing it), I say it because it is my only explanation.

My lunch in Tohqa, in Puerto de Santa de Maria, this summer, was one of the great highlights of a great summer that now seems like a distant memory. It was one of the best meals of a year which you know has involved a lot of lovely meals. It involved some of the sublime mouthfuls of a year which involved an awful lot of those. And it was also one of the great sets of pairings in a life that is literally beset with them.

It was not planned. I knew these fellas had opened a new place and dearly wanted to go but we did not have any chance of doing so until an unfortunate cold scuppered an alternate plan with friends. Once we were available we were also on the spot. Bizarrely, I had in fact booked the hotel opposite without knowing which hotel it was (or where Tohqa was either.) So we ended up pitching up not only Mr and Mrs Undertheflor but also the coming generation.

And it was magic from start to finish.

The start couldn’t have been better. They have taken over the location of a restaurant I used to love – El Arriate – but what used to be cosy and curious is now elegant and airy. In August it was full of light and the tosca was golden, and it was full of fun art – as the younger generation confirm. I will always cherish the memories of how it was (and the people there), but loved seeing it in its new form.

And of course these guys are just great. I should warn readers that I have known them for years. And while that fact may put my neutrality in question, the whole reason I wanted to go was because I had seen them in action before. Here the man on the grill is Edu Perez, previously of Cataria and of other top top places, but who has given me to eat some of the finest things to pass down the old Gregory Peck. An utter crack. And the other guy is Angel, who looks young and funky but is wise and deadly serious in the art of pairing wines. Another one of the same. Superbness squared, but also giften children’s entertainers – will just leave that there.

So we got cracking and it was awesome. We started with the grilled sardine to end all grilled sardines, it moved to a beautifully nutty bread, then a combination of dishes that combined superlight, super smooth, and just super.

I will probably never forget the green baby garbanzos (chickpeas, dudes) in a sticky ham sauce, or the sensational spicy ray and beans, and there are just no words for that magnificent big fish whose face and flank we ate but whose name I have forgotten. The girls tucked into grilled fish and asked for repeats …

But probably the best were the prawns. Such a small animal, that you eat so often, and even often in the great places. But when you eat them like Edu can grill them you realize you have never eaten them. The flesh, the flavour, the moisture. Really a different class: a total masterpiece.

You see Edu has a touch with the grill that is pretty close to sorcery. Anyone can grill a steak or a halibut – not always with the same results – bit it feels like Edu could grill a butterfly wing – or prawn, or sea urchin – without overdoing it. He turns things you have tried many times before into something unique and memorable. And then he grills things you have never tried before, and frankly the top ends up coming off your head.

And then there were the pairings. As I said on IG at the time in fewer characters, it was one of the most outstanding sets of pairings I can remember and the fruit of a lot of hard work. Incredible attention to detail really, and an incredible set of wines to work with. You can see above what he gave me – but I later saw the wine list and it is sensational. The wines above are not new to me and, in absolute terms, not the best he had in hand, but the choices were superb. But I cannot emphasize enough how much thought had gone into it – if one wine would not do for a given course you would get two – or even three – and it was great.

No, it was wonderful. The whole thing was fantastic, cracking, and will live long in the memory.

Sagrario Tradicion

I may not write as often as I used to but there is no doubt that I research the occasional posts more thoroughly. In Kaleja recently I had every item on the menu, my recent post on the Barajuelas was the result of about 20 liters of the stuff over the years and this long-overdue post is the product of no less than six visits to my new high class neighbourhood neotaberna.

The first visit was a sober affair with a good friend but despite not opening a single bottle of wine we saw enough to see we were in the right place – from the tomatoes to the croquettes to the quail, the turbot in pil pil and the flan in amontillado. Absolutely cracking stuff – worth coming back here.

Second visit was for callos, mellow and aromatic callos, with a fascinating 2006 airen, some lovely natural style burgundy, the pluma in a bun and flan again. More top trucking.

Third visit was a long and genial dinner with some good friends and the boss here, Nico – a real character and really good bloke who knows his wine and is generous with his brandy. And he knows his cold cuts too – the shaved aged steak with shavings of foie was bonkers, the others not far behind and as for the torreznos and frogs legs …

Well suffice it to say that I came back for the frogs legs. Big healthy frogs from the North of Spain, in a pisto with a big fried egg on it. The perfect symbol of this place – haute cuisine in down home style. And with it cocido “stuffing” – superb – a glass of Fresquito and then a stunning late albariño – O Rebusco – well worth going back and searching for.

But of course when I went back there was none left, so I made do with a cracking little cod salad, a kind of high end ploughmans, followed by the biggest leg of rabbit I have ever seen washed down with more of the good stuff, including a truly special Vin Jaune.

And then a quick lunch today with some beautiful smokey roasted peppers from Benavente and a pepitoria made with a rooster that could, by its bones, have been mistaken for a dinosaur. And this with a lovely glass of the Williams & Humbert 2012 fino – which is just beautiful stuff – and another lovely natural wine.

This is not your average neighbourhood restaurant. For a start it is well, well above average, and most importantly, it is in my neighbourhood.

Kaleja Part II

It is not often that words fail me but I am struggling, and have been struggling for several weeks, to find the terminology to describe my second visit to Kaleja.

If my first visit was almost furtive, ensconced at the bar with my head down, this time it was an occasion and, oh boy, what an occasion it turned out to be. I had what could be termed the extra long menu – one of everything – and it lead to a couple of hours of proving the fallacy of the good time/long time dichotomy.

The pictures here tell at least some of the story, of dish after outstanding dish, but you would need more than a 1000 words to adequately describe some of these.

Looking at them it is hard to know where to start. Maybe the dish that had the biggest impact on me was the huevas con fetta – a little flavour bomb of fishy and cheesy salinity and freshness. The dish I would have repeated over and over the squid in butter, or maybe the beans in ham, or the foie in salpicon, or the gamba, or the green beans …

The list could go on and on – and I could have too. While some menus can seem a long struggle, this one never got heavy. A fantastic combination of flavours, textures and ingredients, and all that stewing and roasting making for a lunch that was as digestible as it was enjoyable.

You get the idea – it was an absolute feast for the senses.

And a liquid feast too, as Juan “Juanito” Perez weaved a merry thread of superb wines through proceedings, including some absolute crackers beloved of this parish. The Camborio en Rama, Saca de Floracion, La Fleur by Forlong, UBE Miraflores, the Antique Oloroso, the Maria del Valle fino, the Amontillado by Bodegas Tradicion and a sensational Palo Cortado by Antonio Barbadillo.

Superb wines all but also brilliantly matched to the cooking – harmonies and complements, flavours that reinforced each other. Really excellent work.

A really outstanding lunch in fact, one that will live long in the memory. I can’t wait to get back down to Malaga for Round Three.

Coalla Gourmet, Madrid

Coalla Gourmet is an institution up in the north and has long been a friend of this blog. An outstanding selection of sherries (and wines of all kinds), coupled with a superbly efficient web and logistics add up to an awful lot of boxes for my daughters to play with, while the contents of those boxes account for a goodish percentage of the posts on this blog.

There have been some outstanding wines over the years, and although I don’t get up to Gijon as often as I would like, when I do I make a point to stop in at the counter of their cracking space in Cimadevilla for a glass or two of something dry with a sliver or two of top quality ham, or a wedge of first class cheese, or maybe some sardines … and the list could go on and on as they produced hams, cheeses, jars, cans and bottles of quality rations from every corner.

So I was delighted to learn they were opening a store in Madrid, and I am even more delighted now that I have seen it. It is a fantastic space – 350 square meters on two floors – with lots of bar space and plenty of bottles open and cooling – and just like the mother ship in Gijon it is crammed to the rafters with the kind of bib and tucker that makes life worth living.

It opened last Saturday to massive crowds and unanimous applause from every side and has been packing them in ever since. If you haven’t been yet there really isn’t any excuse (unless you don’t like wine, fine food, or fun of course) and there is no doubt that it is a great addition to the Madrid scene – not least for wine lovers. The entire top floor is given over to wines and you can see the muscle of a major distributor here – an absolutely awesome selection of wines from all over Spain and the world, and what is more you can literally take any bottle off the shelf and tuck in, with a very generous corkage policy (free for bottles of €18 or more, bottles below €18 cost €18 in total).

And best of all, it is no more than a 5 minute walk from my home – so I will be able to make regular checks on the wellbeing of Don Ramon and his merry crew.

Welcome to the neighbourhood guys!

Bagá, Jaén

Social networks are so often antisocial but when they actually do the job it is a real treat. This was one such case – I met David, one of the chefs at Bagá a couple of years ago and through the miracle of the above mentioned networks managed to stay in touch. But the miracle didn’t end there: when I posted about a cracking dinner in Madrid recently David posed the excellent question: “when are you coming to Bagá?”. From there it was just a question of getting organized to get the nosebag on.

Now Bagá is in Jaén, capital of the least famous of Andalucia’s six provinces, which has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantages are those of Jaén, which was a really pleasant surprise, with its castle, cathedral and moorish baths, and above all its utter devotion to the green gold of olive oil. The disadvantage is really only one – the distance from Madrid, but even the Michelin guide recognize that Bagá is a detour (**) and to be honest it is probably worth the trip.

It is a terrific little restaurant – and I mean really little, with only 9 seats in use on the day we had dinner: a bar for three and three tables of two. I gather that pre-covid the capacity was larger: you could probably get a full football team in as long as you didn’t have substitutes. The space is very homey too – in all I reckon it is no more than 50 square metres, and aside from that bar there is no barrier between the guests and the kitchen. The result gives you the impression you are having dinner at a friend’s house, and a friendly friend too. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more friendly and welcoming.

It is also absolutely terrific. Dish after superb dish, some of them truly memorable: the quisquillas de Motril, the ajoblanco, the huevas, the pigeon sausage and the roasted peach, to name just the top five. Some really delightful creations and combinations, and like Jaén itself lots to discover and enjoy.

And of course all those solids need washing down and there were no worries on that score either. A really nice selection of champagnes and white wines, including some classy and classic wines from Jerez, Sanlucar and Montilla Moriles, expertly paired to the tastiest morsels. The standout wine on the night was probably Pandorga, perfect with both deserts and in particular the roast peach.

And all too soon it was over and we were off on our merry way, with Jaén and its friendly locals (three pictured above) in our rear view mirror. But not for long – Bagá is worth a detour, may well be worth the trip, and is certainly worth a second dinner!

Taberna Palo Cortado

Taberna Palo Cortado is an unreal place where unlikely, even impossible things are within reach. Took some colleagues there for dinner and, given free rein to show off the best of el Marco and beyond, it turned into one of those memorable dinners.

We started with champagne – not pictured – and maybe it is less well known what a nice little selection of champers is available here. This bottle was just for refreshing between courses but over the years I have had some serious and high quality bubbles. But it wasn’t long before we got stuck into the superb Andalucian wines for which Palo Cortado is famous.

We kicked off with the De la Riva Fino from Balbaina Alta – with that deep colour, deep haybale and hazelnut and fresh background – like a nut store floating on a mountain stream.

But, as I said, I was given free rein, and next up was la Barajuela Fino – 2016 – and it was the star of the night. What an awesome wine – the fruit and top register, the depth and compactness. Everyone loved it – they always do.

Tragically, it soon ran out and so we tapped an altogether more classic fino – a Panesa from October 2019 – which never let’s you down. Just class, sculpted palomino, with all its nuts in butter.

I then picked a wine slightly out of order – Encrucijado 2015 – the proto palo cortado (by now I was fully warmed up and well into an explanation of the situation pre-phyloxera), should really have come earlier. Butterscotch loveliness but so much finer and more subtle in profile than the heavy old Jerez finos.

By now we are tucking into some world class escabeches – pularda and presa ibérica – and the chosen accompaniment was the VORS Amontillado by Bodegas Tradicion. What a class wine – fine, fragrant, flavourful and elegant. One of the very best in its category.

And then callos, garbanzos, and the absolutely epic oloroso De La Riva. Not a lot to say about this absolutely sensational oloroso, except that it struck me as wonderfully elegant for all its rusty nail and acidity.

By this stage of dinner the intellectual discourse has become fragmented and there is a sense that the battle is won. I cannot remember what we had for dessert, but we accompanied it with a regal old 1955 pedro ximenez from Toro Albala, before a glass of the top class Tradicion brandy to cap off the night.

A fantastic dinner with a fair bit of laughter and a range of wines you can only find in one place in Madrid. Many thanks to Paqui and the team and the less said about Thursday morning the better …

Kaleja

The writer has had a few sensational lunches over the years but some are more sensationaler than others. The most sensational of them all was probably the one I had just under six weeks ago in Kaleja in Malaga.

January is a tricky old month – a combination of hangover and start all over, with added paperwork, and anything you can do to boost morale is too little. And it struck me that if you can’t see a bit of daylight between the clouds overhead then it is time to go and seek out the sun. So spotting a gap in the deadlines I availed myself of the convenient high speed train provided at vast expense to the public purse and shimmied down to Malaga. And I wasn’t just after a bit of winter sun, I was on a mission to have a look at this new venture by legends’ legend Dani Carnero and a crew featuring none other than my good mate Juanito, an absolutely top bloke and seriously talented sommelier in the making.

First impressions were bang on the money. It was January 15, bleak midwinter you might think, but not in Malaga. In Malaga the street was full of people in shorts, drinking beers on terraces and generally enjoying life in a way that is utterly inconsistent with any reasonable definition of the term “winter”. Not only that, but the stroll down from the station to the resto is a lovely one – a beautiful, underrated city this, and if you know where you are going you can pass by the traditional market, Picasso’s house and a few other assorted sights on your way. Timing is also perfect – get a train at a reasonable hour from Madrid, wander over and there is just time for a refreshing caña on the terrace before you get down to business.

But get down to business one must get and there, in the shadow of the castle in an alleyway off the famous view of the walls, is the restaurant itself. And it is the business.

I am not your man if you are after descriptions of interior decoration but this place is elegant. The staff, the uniforms, the layout, the furniture, the understated homage to the barbecue coals on display. But the best of all is the kitchen, because the kitchen has a bar – a minimalist stone surface with subtle lighting and an unbeatable view – because a few lucky diners can sit and enjoy a menu that Dani and the crew are literally making before their eyes.

I was one such lucky diner, and doubly lucky because I was allowed to sit there with all my friends (yep, it was just me). Now I have always found it very relaxing to watch others work, and this would have been a very relaxing time had they not been constantly interrupting my contemplation with new wines and dishes.

And what wines they were. You can see them above, and if you have been following this blog for any length of time you don’t need me to tell you that it was what is known as a festival. Absolute gems from start to finish and all the way through: so much so that the Barajuela Fino almost merged with the crowd. Really a consistently high standard and some excellent, innovative choices, but never straying far from the traditional wines of Andalucia, surely the best wines for this cooking 8 times of every 10. I am not saying this was a standard pairing menu – I gave Juanito instructions not to spare the ponies – but even then the pain at the end was more than reasonable – and in fact the list was very faily priced. In short, even a far better blog than this one will find it easy to enjoy the liquid assortment. For me it was just incredible.

And what dishes they were too. Dani Carnero is known as a man for the stews – pride of place in the kitchen is a traditional Andalucian cooking fire surrounded by bubbling pots – but the word “stew” just does not do justice to a recital like this one. I took the standard menu of fourteen dishes with just a couple of extras that Dani talked me into and looking back it is really hard to argue with any of them. If I had to pick any out as especially good they would be the berza, the magic beans in magically cheesy sauce, the ajoblanco, the rice, the roasted peppers, the hare, the callos de bacalao, the mackerel, the squid, the lentils  … (let’s face it, I couldn’t really pick any out). The bread was crunchy and fleshy, the butter was flavourful. See if you can find fault with it because I could not.

In summary: three hours of absolute treat after absolute treat, in the best possible surroundings.

Because the space you are in is congenial – beautifully decorated in the quietest possible street in central Malaga, but the best of all is that you are surrounded by the absolute salt of the earth. Juanito is a friend and a known great bloke, and I had also had good reports of Dani Carnero, but nothing could have prepared me for the welcome I received down there. It was like dropping into your mate’s house, inviting yourself into the kitchen and having him or her whip you up a world class menu and soak you in world class wines while you chew the cud and generally set the world to rights. (He knows his onions too, your man there.)

A truly memorable experience in a world class restaurant that surely must now go on to conquer the world. I have never been one for real estate investments but if you could buy the land under the seats at that bar in the kitchen I reckon you would be golden.

Many thanks to Juanito, Dani and the whole team and my sincere congratulations. I cannot wait to get back to that stool at the bar for another go but will always remember my first visit.

The 7 i(T) Gastrolab

A couple of weeks ago I had one of the very best meals I can remember in the intriguingly monikered 7 i(T) Gastrolab .

The Gastrolab is the creation of two of the brightest lights of the Madrid restaurant scene: Narciso Bermejo and Xabi Guitart, and the evolution of their project of the last two years, the 7 Islands Craft Bar.

The driving force behind it is Narciso Bermejo, one of the most impressive, most original individuals around. Trained as a chef but a genius with a cocktail shaker (or stirrer, or any other implement) and almost more importantly one of the most uncompromisingly thoughtful and innovative guys you could hope to meet, an unstoppable force striving to bring balance to the insane business of bars and restaurants. In only a few years he has been behind several top class, highly original projects, including Macera, the 7 Islands Craft Bar, Nada365 and now the Gastrolab.

For his part, Xabi Guitart is a phenomenally talented young chef who despite his tender years has experience in kitchens of the stature of Lera, Kabuki, and Diverxo and now, with nearly two years of his own creations under his belt, has really come into his own. It sounds like a cliché but there was a real maturity to the menu he gave us the other night, with dishes that were superbly executed and in equal parts delicious and surprising, and a clear leap forward even from the high standards of the last two years.

I will not discuss the individual dishes because the guys want the menus to be surprising, but I can tell you it is a really nicely constructed menu with the dishes bound together with arguments that were consistent and appealing – again no spoilers but this was no rag tag or allsorts. There are in fact two menus: a short menu at €45 and a long one at €75, and both are outstanding value, as good as anything you will find in Madrid for a ticket way below the average.

It wouldn’t be fair not to mention the third member of the team. Luis, another young chef, with experience in Copenhagen’s Geranium and until recently Xabi’s right hand man in the kitchen, but working here in the front of house as sommelier and maitre, with an engaging, friendly enthusiasm and a pretty handy wine list at his disposal. The wine list has a cracking variety of wines and some really nice stuff on it (some quality sherries as you can see, but also some top class bubbles and some lovely wines from all over Europe). It resolves one of the only weaknesses of the 7 Islas Craft Bar, and allows them to offer some nice, original pairings, which were excellent on the night.

There is no doubt that the 7i(T) Gastrolab is a phenomenon, but sadly it is only a temporary one: until the end of this month in fact. After that, Narciso at least will be striking out for a new project, although I believe that Xabi and Luis hope to stay on at the 7 Islas in one guise or another and, who knows, if enough of us get in there in the next couple of weeks …

So it is time to bring and end to dry January, veganuary, or any other atonement you may be planning for your festive excesses. Please take my advice and get yourselves a table before the chance has gone. You will not regret it.